Documents: Civil War / Reconstruction

Ratified in March,1861 the Constitution of the Confederate States of America (C. S. A.) included certain key principles of the U. S. Constitution such as separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. Many of its specific provisions were taken word for word from the U. S. Constitution. However, there were important differences.

Unlike the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution which speaks about “forming a more perfect union,” the Preamble to the Confederate Constitution acknowledged the “independent and sovereign character” of each state and declared its purpose to “form a permanent federal government.” The Confederate Constitution’s Preamble also omitted the words “common defense” and “general welfare,” and invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” The Confederate Constitution limited the executive to a single six-year term of office. Confederate courts were prevented from exercising significant control over state laws. The legislative branch of the Confederate government was checked by the President exercising a line-item vote. Laws could only be about a single subject, and the subject had to be in the title of the law. Laws pertaining to the most important powers of the government had to be passed by super-majority votes, a percentage that is greater than 50%, rather than by simple 50% majority. Unlike the U. S. Constitution which lists important rights of the people in a Bill of Rights at the end of the Constitution, those same rights were incorporated into the body of the C. S. A. Constitution.

The two documents also differed significantly with respect to the institution of slavery. While the U. S. Constitution did not specifically contain the words “slaves,” “slavery,” or “slave trade,” it did allow slavery to continue, and three of its provisions did deal with slaves, slavery, or the slave trade without using those words. The C. S. A. Constitution specified that Congress could pass “no law…. denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.” New states could be admitted, but the institution of slavery would have to be “recognized and protected” by territorial governments and Congress. The international slave trade was banned (as it had been in the U. S. since 1808), and the Confederate Congress could prevent slaves from being imported from states which were not part of the Confederacy. In fact, four clauses of the Confederate Constitution secured the legality of slavery in the Confederacy.

The Homestead Act, which took effect on January 1, 1863, provided that individual homesteaders who paid a nominal fee and resided on the land for five years could claim 160 acres of non-occupied, surveyed public land. Eligible was any person who was head of a family or was 21 years old and a citizen of the U. S. or declared intention to become a citizen and had never borne arms against the United States. Historians credit several members of Congress with having proposed different versions of homestead legislation through the years, including Andrew Johnson who before the Civil War served as a Congressman from Tennessee. However, disposing of public land before the Civil War always faced the sectional differences so present at the time. The South generally opposed the sale of public land, while the North and West favored the sale. In the year of the 1860 election, President Buchanan vetoed a version of the Homestead Act to try and appease the South. Lincoln and the Republicans used this against the Democrats in the later campaign as a campaign issue. Historians have called the Homestead Act and the Morrill Land-Grant Act two of the most important pieces of legislation of the nineteenth century because it led to the U.S. becoming a stronger nation. From the end of the Civil War to the end of the 19th century, the population of the Great Plains grew from less than a million to more than nine million. Often this was at the great expense of Native Americans, who were pushed off their lands onto reservations. In 1860, only nine U. S. cities had more than 100,000 residents. Five decades later, 50 large metropolises, including Denver, Detroit, and Cleveland, had sprung up along the new railroad routes. A total of 285 million acres, or 10 percent of the land mass of the United States, was claimed and settled under the Homestead Act.
President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 in a short speech at the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania a few months after Union forces defeated Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln defined the Civil War as a way of securing the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equality of all people. Victory for the Union, Lincoln said, was a way of making the country’s founding ideals a reality. The speech transformed the meaning of the Civil War, which had previously been about preserving the Union, and compelled a rethinking of the meaning of America’s Founding documents.

Lincoln began his address with these words: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ He concluded the Address by saying: “It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It declared slaves in all rebelling states to be “forever free.” Of course, this would only occur if the Union won the Civil War. The Proclamation did not affect slaves in states like Kentucky, Missouri, or Maryland that had not seceded from the Union. It also exempted from its provisions some sections of rebelling states that were already under Union control.

Because Lincoln believed that he lacked the constitutional authority to free slaves, he issued this document as a war measure in his capacity as Commander in Chief. One important result of the Emancipation Proclamation was that freed slaves were now welcomed into the Union’s armed forces. Further, the fact that some slaves were to be freed may have prevented Britain, where slavery was illegal, from entering the war on the side of the Confederacy. Historians argue that the Emancipation Proclamation added moral force to the Union cause and transformed the Civil War from a war to save the Union into a war for freedom and equality.

When President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, it was clear that the Confederacy was going to lose the Civil War. In his address, Lincoln identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War and described the war as God’s punishment to a people—both Northerners and Southerners alike—who would “wring their bread from other men’s faces.”

Lincoln’s goal had always been to unify the country, and he sought to heal the nation’s wounds when he said: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln was assassinated one month after giving this speech.